Thousands of firefighters offered white-gloved salutes, young girls snapped cellphone cameras, and old men stood with hands over their hearts as the flag-shrouded casket of Boston firefighter Paul J. Cahill was carried from its perch atop Engine 30 into Holy Name Church in West Roxbury yesterday.
During the funeral, friends and family described Cahill not only as a hero, but as an accomplished cook, a doting father, a loving husband - a man, his firehouse captain said, "impossible not to like."
"I will tell you he had no problem with public displays of affection for his wife, Anne," Cahill's brother, James, told the 1,500 mourners who gathered inside the sanctuary for the three-hour funeral. He then addressed Anne Cahill and the couple's three children as they sat in the front row of the massive church. "And he was so very proud to be married to you, Anne, and he loved you very deeply."
As loudspeakers carried the eulogies through the streets of West Roxbury, firefighters, police, and neighbors listened in silence.
Cahill, 55, was killed less than a half-mile from the church, battling a seemingly routine fire Aug. 29 at the Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese Restaurant that erupted into an inferno. The funeral of Ladder 25 firefighter Warren J. Payne, who died searching for patrons and employees at the restaurant, will be held today in Dorchester. Cahill and Payne were the first Boston firefighters to die in the line of duty since 1994.
Firefighters from as far away as Canada and California made a pilgrimage to the church yesterday, shuttled between gatherings by T buses driven by MBTA workers who volunteered for the task on their day off.
Fire officials estimated that 10,000 firefighters came to West Roxbury for the service. Under a cloudy sky, they stood ramrod straight in a line that stretched at least 10 blocks. In their double-breasted dress blue uniforms, they lined the sidewalks and crowded into front yards and onto porches as the procession passed, carrying the casket from a Canton funeral home past the station and the burned shell of the Tai Ho to the church.
"This is what we do," said Marc Davis, a San Diego firefighter who flew into Boston on Wednesday for both funerals. "This is just how we stick together."
Bagpipers from Maine, Rhode Island, and Ohio joined the procession about a quarter-mile from the church, marching ahead of the engine truck. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Governor Deval Patrick, and Senator John F. Kerry were among the dignitaries who came to the church to remember a man who left a more lucrative job as an electrician to work as a firefighter.
Edward Kelly, president of Firefighters Local 718, told the mourners that Cahill initially hesitated when his uncle told him he should become a firefighter.
Cahill had dreamed of pursuing the job but was worried it would not pay as well as the electrical trade. But at 40, he took the test and never regretted the decision, Kelly said.
"You were right," Kelly said Cahill eventually told his uncle. "I died and went to heaven."
The dangers of the job may sometimes have weighed upon him, but he never would have considered himself a hero, said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters. Last Wednesday, when Cahill charged into the restaurant with the hose, he was just doing his job.
"When that call came in, he didn't hesitate, he didn't flinch," Schaitberger said. "He went to work."
Cahill's father was a Boston police officer. His mother was a registered nurse who worked in Boston hospitals. Public service was a family legacy, said his brother, James.
"You can see the pattern. You can see the fabric by which Paul was made," he said.
At home in Scituate, his children's friends called him "Cat Daddy" and relied on him for advice and encouragement, a family friend said during the service.
At the West Roxbury fire station, Cahill was known as an excellent cook whose fish dish with peppers and onions was a favorite among the firefighters.
He had a discriminating touch when it came to buying breads and pastries, and was particularly pleased when he got to cook meat, said Stephen Keogh, captain of Engine 30.
" 'Boys, I have some nice steaks' or 'a beautiful roast tonight,' " Keogh recalled him saying. "Then he would add, 'My wife, Anne, is a vegetarian and we rarely have meat at home, so I like to get some nice cuts of beef.' "
He described Cahill as a "jake of guts and wit."
"It was impossible not to like him," Keogh said. "We want to hold on, even though we must let go."
Cahill's 21-year-old son, Adam, told the congregation he had no words to describe his love for his father.
"It's not due to a lack of vocabulary; they just don't exist," he said. "I could always rely on him for reassurance that the sun would rise, regardless of how terrible the day had been. I consider this just a dark day, but to my joy - and I am sure to his - I can see the sun has already begun to break through."
At the end of the funeral, members of Engine 30 handed the family Cahill's badge and his fire helmet, which Adam Cahill held as he walked out of the church with his mother, his older brother, Brendan, and his younger sister, Shawna. The clouds had broken and the sun shone brightly on the family as they watched firefighters place the casket back on the engine for the journey to the cemetery.
Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com.